by Christian Duque
Just recently a new directive from the NPC International Office made it clear that only competitors 18 and over could compete. This decision rocked the fitness industry, as teenage competitors have long competed at the local, regional, and national level. The crown jewel of events for this age range has always been the NPC Teen Nationals.
This is a title won by many greats in the sport, including 3x Champion Cody Montgomery. It used to be that competitors 16 and over could do the show up and until their 19th year. The title was such a feather in a competitor’s cap, that sometimes a teenage competitor would rather try to win the title multiple years than going directly to the Open. The decision not to allow competitors under the age of 18 to compete didn’t come with any extra information. It was short and to the point, but as is often the case with directives, it’s created a lot of conversation from pundits, competitors, as well as insiders. When enough readers started asking me what my thoughts were, it just made more sense to pen this article, along with some added insights and publish it here, at Iron Magazine. One thing about our publication is that we listen to our readers.
For starters, there needs to be some clarification about what the directive actually covers and what it does not. This is by no means a “teen ban,” as I’ve seen in some discussions. 18 and 19 yr old competitors are totally fine to compete. They will have no issues, just like collegiate competitors won’t, either. Therefore, teenage competitors will still be able to compete locally, regionally, and nationally. That said, competitors under 18 will not. This directive is also just for the NPC and IFBB Pro League. There are still any number of other federations, namely natural ones, where competitors in the 16-17yr age range could still compete. Understandably, if you want to compete with the best, you’ll want to be on an NPC stage. Therefore, as of the directive, if you’re under 18, you effectively won’t have a stage to compete on until you reach the age of majority. Is that unfair to teenage competitors who have been in prep or who have had the 2022 contest in my mind since last year? Maybe it is, but that’s just how the cookie crumbles. And unfortunately for those competitors, I’m pretty sure the decision is here to stay.
Opponents of the directive make some great points. The vast majority of coaches who prepped teenage competitors did so ethically and responsibly. They consulted parents, kept their clients on the natural path, and gave sensible training plans that avoided these young competitors from getting injured. All in all, teen divisions were about having fun and getting these youngsters acquainted with the sport. A great many of the most successful pro’s of recent memory and of today, started in teenage competitions.
Bodybuilding is all about offering divisions for all types of physiques, for all heights, and up until recently, for all ages. Perhaps the directive in question undermines the general trend towards all-inclusiveness that’s been the name of the game for quite some time. The directive may also, arguably, undermine the goal of making bodybuilding a family-friendly sport. It’s less family-friendly, if the kids can’t compete, right? But then again, maybe the exclusion serves a greater purpose. There’s that to think of, as well.
Supporters of the directive make some very strong points, as well. They know how coaches should behave and they readily admit that most gurus do treat teenage competitors accordingly; however, they also know there’s a growing number of boneheads, who make terrible judgment calls. For example, the idea of a 16 or 17yr old competitor hitting gear hard, isn’t going to fly. The idea of a competitor of that age being put on aggressive diuretics or exotic cutting agents not approved for humans or even farm animals, may be enough to keep officials up at night.
While we’ve seen top pro’s double over in cramps, pass out, and/or be rushed to the ER, those are grown adults. If something like that ever happened with a high schooler who was competing for fun, that would be a PR disaster for the contest, the federation, and the entire sport. And just because this hasn’t happened yet, doesn’t mean it couldn’t happen one day. The risks far outweigh the benefits. And while opponents of the directive could point to any number of mitigating circumstances, as well as suggest onsite testing, once again, the risk outweighs the benefit.
Testing isn’t practical and many times, even the most elaborate screening processes render inconclusive results. Additionally, the procedures can get quite expensive, with labor and equipment needs. Also, who would pay for all this? There’s simply not enough teen competitors to pay for this from their Division’s entry fees. With that being the case, the fees might have to come from other Divisions – or – the promoters might have to pay for them right off the top. Not only doesn’t the benefit outweigh the risk, but the cost it would require to minimize potential health risks, is clearly not justified, either. On these two points, alone, if public opinion counted for anything, then I’d say the vast majority of folks polled would support the Federations’ decision moving forward.
Conversations will continue and many will hinge upon the fact that the Division is, essentially, being punished for the actions of just a few. I totally understand that sentiment, but to downplay that very real concern is also misguided. The Federations must look at the bigger picture. They can’t afford to overlook the issue of liability and they also can’t overlook perception factors – and there are many.
Also, we can’t dismiss the pitfalls of bad coaching, simply, because parents would need to be consulted. There’re some folks out there who can’t take care of a plant, let alone a pet, or much less a child. I’m not here to judge good parenting, but we all know of parents who live vicariously through their children. If a fast-talking coach got a hold of the right parents, telling them how much potential their son has, how much money he could make, and how quickly he could turn pro, IF, he got a particular program, some parents might give in. if their kid gets injured training, has initial renal failure, and/or collapses on stage, that might be considered to be a reasonable risk in pursuit of “making it big,” to them. It might not be a problem for those parents, but it could easily be a major black eye for the contest, the federation, and the sport. Imagine what the mainstream media would do with a story like that?
All in all, I feel bad for the competitors that the directive excludes from competition, but I understand the rationale for its implementation. Not only do I understand it, I agree with it. What’s your take? I have a feeling we’ll be hearing about this for quite some time on message boards and groups. While it is possible that the topic might get revisited, I just don’t see this directive being changed, anytime soon, if ever.